- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS — Peyton Manning was looking much like a playoff choker again at halftime last night. But the NFL’s top passer improbably rallied his Indianapolis Colts to stun their nemeses, the three-time champion New England Patriots, 38-34 in the AFC Championship game at the RCA Dome.

“You certainly don’t envision [coming back from] being down 21-3 to the New England Patriots in any game, especially the playoffs,” said Manning, who passed for 225 of his 349 yards after halftime.

Colts coach Tony Dungy will meet protege Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4 in Miami, with the winner becoming the first black coach to win the title.

“We had do it the hard way,” Dungy said. “We had to go through a great champion. At halftime I just felt the energy in our locker room. We were just two scores down. We said if we could get a good kickoff return and score, then we’re one score down with everything that happened. Then we could make it a 60-minute game. When that happened, our whole sideline just lit up.”

Manning, who had a 51.4 passer rating in a poor first half that included an interception Asante Samuel returned for a touchdown, was anything but poor in the third quarter with a 132.2 rating to lead the comeback from the 21-6 halftime deficit. However, it was rookie running back Joseph Addai, the replacement for departed free agent Edgerrin James, who scored the winning touchdown on a 2-yard run with 1:00 to play. Marlin Jackson clinched the victory by intercepting two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady’s pass four plays later. The loss was just the second in 14 playoff games for Brady and Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

The game-winning drive started at the Indianapolis 20 with 2:17 remaining. Manning passed 11 yards to Reggie Wayne, and after Bryan Fletcher dropped a ball, he went right back to the third-string tight end for 32. Another 14-yard pass to Wayne and a personal foul on New England’s Tully Banta-Cain put the ball on the 11. Addai did the rest, taking it into the end zone standing up on his third straight carry.

“Once our defense stopped them, there was no doubt … that we were going to take that ball down and score,” Dungy said. “I feel great for Peyton to get to the Super Bowl with a drive like that.”

Last night’s rally began with backup running back Dominic Rhodes leading a 14-play, 76-yard drive that Manning completed with a sneak for the touchdown that brought the blue-and-white-clad throng back to life with 8:13 left in the third quarter.

When the Patriots took over, Colts rookie safety Antoine Bethea, a Howard alumnus, stopped fullback Heath Evans short on third-and-2. Manning hit tight end Dallas Clark for 25 yards on Indianapolis’ first play on its next drive. Rhodes ran for 19. A pass interference penalty on Ellis Hobbs put the ball on the New England 1, and Manning found tackle-eligible Dan Klecko, a former Patriots defensive lineman, for the touchdown. The two-point lob to Marvin Harrison tied the game with 4:00 to go in the quarter.

Hobbs returned the kickoff 80 yards. Reche Caldwell dropped a sure touchdown on second-and-goal, but Brady found Jabar Gaffney in the back of the end zone. Dungy challenged the call, but it was upheld.

Still, the Colts kept coming. Rhodes picked up 32 yards on two catches and a run. Clark’s 23-yard catch made it first-and-goal at the 9. When Rhodes fumbled at the goal line, center Jeff Saturday equaled an earlier heads-up play of Patriots guard Logan Mankins by recovering for the touchdown. It was 28-28 with 13:24 left.

However, Indianapolis bumbled its next possession and rookie Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yard field goal put New England back on top 31-28 with 7:42 remaining. Adam Vinatieri, Gostkowski’s predecessor, tied it again 2:11 later thanks to Clark’s 52-yard grab. Hobbs returned the kickoff 41 yards. Brady hooked up with tight end Daniel Graham for 35 yards. Gostkowski was true again from 43 yards.

Manning took over with 3:49 left, trailing 34-31 but threw three incompletions, and the Colts had to punt. After Bob Sanders broke up Brady’s third-down pass for Troy Brown, the Colts had another shot.

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